California governor pardons formerly incarcerated firefighters

California’s governor has issued pardons to two formerly incarcerated firefighters who had been threatened with deportation to Laos after spending most of their lives in the US.

Gavin Newsom on Friday announced the pardons for Bounchan Keola, 39, and Kao Saelee, 41, who were both sent to US immigration authorities last year after spending decades in prison for teenage convictions and had battled wildfires as incarcerated firefighters.

Both men told their stories to the Guardian from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) jails last fall, prompting national outrage about their potential deportation to Laos, a country their families had fled as refugees decades ago.

“I could never have imagined this would happen,” Saelee told the Guardian by phone after learning the news. Saelee, who was two years old when his family left Laos, spent 22 years in prison for a robbery when he was a teen, and after completing his sentence was transferred to Ice for deportation. He was released from an Ice jail last week and came home to his family in the Fresno, California, area, reuniting for the first time in decades.

Keola spent more than two decades in prison after he was prosecuted as an adult at age 16 and accepted a plea deal in a second-degree attempted murder case. At the end of his sentence last year, he served on the frontlines of massive wildfires as part of an inmate firefighting program. He was hit by a fallen tree and suffered a near-fatal injury.

Instead of returning to his family in the Bay Area after serving his sentence, the prison transferred Keola directly to Ice while he was still recovering from his serious injuries.

Newsom called Keola on Friday to deliver the news. “I thought somebody was trying to prank me, but [the governor] said, ‘Thank you for your service as a firefighter and keep up the good work,’” Keola told the Guardian after the call.

“This is all I wanted – a second chance to live this American life,” he added. “We came to this country to have a better life.”

Keola is of Khmu descent, an ethnic minority, and had escaped the country after the Vietnam war. Saelee is of Mien descent, a minority that also faced persecution after the war.

Bounchan Keola, second from left, with his sister, left, Thongsouk Keola, and parents after being released from prison.
Bounchan Keola, second from left, with his sister, left, Thongsouk Keola, and parents after being released from prison. Photograph: Courtesy of Thongsouk Keola

Newsom’s pardons mean both men will no longer face deportation threats, can return to being legal permanent residents, can get work authorization and eventually apply for citizenship, said Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, who has represented both men.

“It’s a huge relief, and I’m incredibly happy for Kao and Boun and their families who for the last year have been constantly worried that they would be permanently separated,” Prasad said. “I’m glad Governor Newsom was able to see that they are more than their convictions from when they were teenagers, and I hope he sees the same is true for so many people inside prison,” he added.

With the clemency grant, Keola said he was hopeful he could now serve as a licensed firefighter.

Advocates have also been pressing Newsom to end his practice of voluntarily transferring people from state prisons to immigration, calling it a form of double punishment. It’s a policy that continues to lead to deportations of refugees under Biden.

After Saelee and Keola spoke out, state lawmakers across California called for Newsom to pardon them and pushed for legislation that would end the transfers and protect people from deportation.


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